Monday, November 1, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Seven Black Priests

My love for Fritz Leiber's tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser know few bounds. As I've written on numerous previous occasions, I consider them perhaps the closest, in terms of content and, above all, feel to Gary Gygax's vision of the implied setting of Dungeons & Dragons. More than that, the Twain themselves behave in ways that remind me of the antics of player characters in a long-running and interesting campaign. This reveals most clearly in their interactions with one another. Steadfast friends who can be completely relied upon in moments of danger, Fafhrd and the Mouser nevertheless quibble and squabble with one another. They get on each others' nerves and sometimes even come to momentary blows – but, in the end, the reader knows they'll always be there when the going gets rough. That's probably why I consider them among the most appealing characters ever to appear in the annals of fantasy literature.

"The Seven Black Priests" first appeared in the May 1953 issue of Other Worlds, one of several magazines edited by Ray Palmer after his legendary run as editor of Amazing Stories. The story is initially told from the perspective of one of the eponymous priests, who finds himself drawn to "the rumble of singing" he hears in the snowy expanse near the Cold Waste. The source of the singing, we soon learn, is none other than Fafhrd, who is attempting to cheer up his friend, who did not like the snow and ice as he did. 

The aforementioned priest studies the pair for a short time before leaping, dagger drawn, upon them. A brief fight ensues, during which the priest slips and falls into a chasm, seemingly to his death. The Mouser is puzzled, both by why this man would suddenly attack them but also by his appearance: his skin was completely black. 

"But what was he?" the Mouser asked frowningly. "He looked like a man of Klesh."

"Yes, with the jungles of Klesh as far from here as the moon," Fafhrd reminded him with a chuckle. "Some maddened hermit frostbitten black, no doubt. There are strange skulkers in these little hills, they say."

The Mouser peered up the dizzily mile-high cliff and spotted the nearby niche. "I wonder if there are more of him?" he questioned uneasily.

As they get closer to the Cold Waste and its lava vents, they spot a "green hill with a glitter." Looking closer, they see that "there rose from it a stubby pillar of rock almost like an altar."

But something else was foremost in the Mouser's thoughts.

"The eye, Fafhrd. The glad, glittering eye!" he whispered, dropping his voice as though they were in a crowded street and some informer or rival thief might overhear. "Only once before have I seen such a gleam, and that was by moonlight, across a king's treasure chamber. That time I did not come away with a huge diamond. A guardian serpent prevented it. I killed the wiggler, but its hiss brought other guards.

"But this time there's only a little hill to climb. And if at this distance the gem gleams so bright, Fafhrd" – his hand dropped and gripped his companion's leg, at the sensitive point just above the knee, for emphasis – "think how big!"

Excited by the prospect of looting the diamond he is sure is there, the Mouser "went skipping gaily" toward his prize, while Fafhrd "followed more slowly, gazing steadily at the green hill." When the two of meet at the base of the hill, the Mouser finds "a flat, dark rock covered with gashes" that Fafhrd immediately recognizes as "the runes of tropic Klesh." If nothing else, this proves the man who attacked them probably was a Kleshite and not some madman blackened by frostbite. Together, they attempt to decipher the runes.

"The seven black …" Fafhrd read laboriously.

"... priests," the Mouser finished for him. "They're in it, whoever they may be. And a god or beast or devil – that writing hieroglyph means any one of the three, depending on the surrounding words, which I don't understand. It's very ancient writing. And the seven black priests are to serve the writhing hieroglyph, or to bind it – again either might be meant, or both."

"And so long as the priesthood endures," Fafhrd took up, "that long will the god-beast-devil lie quietly … or sleep … or stay dead … or not come up."

Reading all this makes the Mouser uneasy, who claims he has "lost [his] hunger" for the gem, dismissing it as "likely just a bit of quartz." Unfortunately for him, Fafhrd declares he has "only now worked up a good appetite" and determines to climb the hill and reach the gem, ominous Kleshite runes be damned. 

Needless to say, the gem is no ordinary diamond and the message of the runes is indeed a warning. The Twain's attempt to steal it results in the appearance of the seven black priests – "The six," Mouser reminds Fafhrd and the reader, "We killed one of them last night." – all of whom are dedicated to stopping them. Why they do this and indeed why they are so far from their southern home forms the remainder of the story, which is rollicking good bit of pulp fantasy. 

"The Seven Black Priests" is perhaps a little more humorous and little less grim than some of Leiber's efforts, but it still stands head and shoulders above most other yarns of this kind. In large part, that's because, as I stated at the start of this post, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are such delightfully realized characters. I enjoyed reading about their exploits no matter what they are doing and this story is no different. As exciting as the situations Leiber describes frequently are, it's his protagonists that keep me coming back for more – but then I would expect nothing less from the greatest thieves in all of Lankhmar!


  1. Much as I enjoy the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories I've struggled to enjoy any of the other Leiber work I've run across. He's got some big ideas that I want to like (eg Big Time's take on how a temporal war between two factions might look, Wanderer's grand space opera-scale moon-eating worldship) but somehow the execution always leaves me disappointed in the end. Haven't tried everything out there though - anyone care to offer a suggestion on a non-dynamic duo Leiber piece to try

    1. I'm a big fan of Leiber, although I agree his ideas are sometimes better than their execution.

      I think Leiber disn't take himself too seriously, and this may have undermined part of his work, maybe? A kind of self-sabotage.

      I very much like Big Time, Our Lady of Darkness, A specter is haunting Texas, Conjure Wife, Gather darkness!, The silver eggheads.
      I think these are his best books outside of the Nehwon stories.

      I honestly found Wanderer boring, and both Green Millenium and Destiny times three inferior quality pieces.

      But it's been a while since my last read, so take my opinions with a grain of salt

    2. Hmmm. I bounced off Specter Haunting Texas the last time I tried reading it (in the 90s) but I have a very low tolerance Texan aggrandizement a thing? Whatever it is that permeates that book. Perhaps I should give it another shot, or try one of the others I haven't tried. Silver Eggheads sounds interesting from the synopsis.

      Wanderer was very dull, which is a large part of my disappointment with it. I was hoping for something grandiose like EE "Doc" Smith or Weber's Mutineer's Moon books. The whole time I was reading the latter I kept thinking to myself how terribly surprised the Wanderer would have been when Dahak violently objected to them trying to take a bite out of him. :)

    3. Try "Smoke Ghost"

      “A smoky composite face with the hungry anxiety of the unemployed, the neurotic restlessness of the person without purpose, the jerky tension of the high-pressure metropolitan worker, the uneasy resentment of the striker, the callous opportunism of the scab, the aggressive whine of the panhandler, the inhibited terror of the bombed civilian, and a thousand other twisted emotional patterns. Each one overlying and yet blending with the other, like a pile of semi-transparent masks.”

  2. This may be my fave of Leiber's F&TGM tales.

  3. Just in case anyone wants to know where to find this in collected form, it is included in "Swords Against Death", the second book in the series (first being "Swords and Deviltry").